Danger Zone: Hip Hop’s Heaviest Albums by the Decade

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Although they’re vastly different in culture and influences, I’ve always felt some key similarities between hip hop, punk rock, and metal. For one, from their infancy they’ve signified danger to the status quo – 2 Live Crew went on trial for playing a city where their music was banned. The Dead Kennedys took scathingly sarcastic digs at Reagan-era ideology. Cannibal Corpse’s transgressive album art and lyrics appalled purity-minded grown-ups the world over (earning them bans and censorship persisting into this decade). This was music that brought the fringe to the mainstream – it carried a militant, youthful energy that scared people, making the Led Zeppelins and Elvis Presleys feared by previous generations appear angelic in comparison.

But on the more extreme ends of rock and hip hop, at least, I also feel there is a distinct itch that is scratched by the music. Specifically, the itch for heaviness; for high volume, for uncleanliness, for exhilaration. For the senses to be stimulated to the highest degree, be it through ferocious speed, monolithic tones, sinister vocals, or any form of abrasion. Yet, in spite of my efforts, I often have a hard time selling this idea to my more rock-inclined friends. To remedy this I tried to think of some albums across hip hop’s history which I feel fit the bill for ‘heavy’ music. So, without further ado, here are some of hip hop’s heaviest albums, organized by decade:

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1980s:

Geto Boys – Making Trouble (1988)

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Houston rap pioneers the Geto Boys are typically remembered for their early 90s releases – violent, raucous records often compared stylistically to the work of NWA – but their debut tape, featuring a very different lineup and released six months before NWA’s commercial debut, is anything but docile.

Making Trouble-era Geto Boys could perhaps be likened to a menacing, bloodthirsty Run-DMC. The difference between them and their more palatable, jauntier muses, however, is the sinister hunger which pervades their sound and aura. Across tracks like Making Trouble, Assassins, and Geto Boys Will Rock You, the vocal space is dominated by relentless, hard-hitting bars and samples of Tony Montana yelling things like ‘don’t FUCK with me!’ The rapping on this album gives off a sense of real instability – instead of coming off like cold, calculating killers, original frontman Johnny C and company are more frantic, like they’ve been pushed over the edge and there’s no turning back.

Many of the beats stick to the mid-80s Def Jam style, but the average tempo is a lot slower, combining with the drums’ thick low end and powerful snares to form a sound that is remarkably weighty for its time. It’s by no means perfect, with an abundance of filler tracks rearing their heads, but for 1988, Making Trouble is pretty damn mean.

NWA – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

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Here it is, in all its ruthless glory. This album sparked national outrage, to the point of organized protests and record burnings. Hardcore hip hop had been around a while, but with Straight Outta Compton, it achieved a new level of ferocity and popularity.

The sound is fast and loose, right out of the gate. The first three tracks, Straight Outta Compton, Fuck Tha Police, and Gangsta Gangsta, hit the listener with a 1-2-3 punch of uptempo breakbeats, cold-blooded funk samples, and relentless cyphers from a team of  MCs who make up for somewhat questionable timekeeping with engaging, hyperanimated delivery. Whereas the mixing on Making Trouble is defined by muted highs and slower, booming drums, Straight Outta Compton takes the thrash metal approach – crisp treble (without sacrificing bass, of course), high-pitched snares, and an organized cacophony of exhilarating instrumentals. Although not an entirely original sound, with considerable musical dues paid to NYC’s Public Enemy, NWA has a lack of inhibition on this album unparalleled by even the most militant hip hop acts of the time. 

1990s:

Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

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It wouldn’t be out of line to consider Wu-Tang the East Coast’s answer to NWA, but it would be unforgivable to cast them off as imitators. The infamous crew’s debut, 36 Chambers, radiates a cold aesthetic which combines the theatrical violence of old kung fu films with the grim realities of life in the Staten Island projects. And it slams.

The beats on this release aren’t inflammatory in the way that Making Trouble or Straight Outta Compton‘s are, but that’s what makes them effective. Grimy lo-fi drums, out-of-tune piano samples, and basses which are more felt than heard make for a sinister combination that places the listener right on the dark, rainy streets of NYC’s forgotten borough.

Meanwhile, nine MCs with drastically different styles ranging from the in-your-face barrages of Ghostface Killah to the fanatical rants of ODB go back-to-back-to-back, playing off each other’s energy and leaving the listener no time for recuperation. Throw in a variety of creative samples, such as the buzzing of angry bees beneath Clan in Da Front‘s intro or the ‘Good morning Vietnaaaaam!’ clip on Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber, and you’ve got an onslaught of an album that is out to get you. Specifically you.

Big L – Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous (1995)

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Few albums in hip hop’s more hyperbolic, horror-inspired realm manage to be as legitimately shocking as they strive to be. Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous is an exception. The album may start off sounding like one of Illmatic‘s many imitators, but four tracks in it abruptly steers off the rails into a fiery pit of bass, bars, and mortal sin.

Tracks like Danger Zone, Da Graveyard, and Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous feature eerie, atonal clips of sax and church bells over foreboding double bass lines, as L spits relentlessly about being Satan’s son, murdering his friends, and having a refrigerator full of body parts. Although these are areas familiar to many horrorcore MCs, Big L’s clever wordplay and technical but tasteful flow set him apart from the rest. Plus, he knows when to hold his cards – instead of being all-gruesome-all-the-time, he throws in his most jarring lines sparingly to retain their affect.

2000s:

Lil Jon & The East Size Boyz – Kings of Crunk (2002)

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Lil Jon’s face on the cover of this album pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. The oft-parodied frontman, equal parts MC and hype man, screams highly repetitious crunk mantras whose word choice privileges “the club”, “scared”, and “yeah” for a while over heavily produced beats with a lot of claps. But like, is it not fun?

Although this album is super loud and aggressive, it’s probably the most lighthearted item on the list; it’s not like Lil Jon and company were setting out to make any profound statements here. The high-octane, tongue-in-cheek vibe and numerous features from big names like Bun B, Too $hort, and E-40 make Kings of Crunk feel like a big, wild musical party, where you can leave your worries at the door… except the worry that if you act up Lil Jon will fuck you up. Because he clearly states this multiple times.

Three 6 Mafia – Da Unbreakables (2003)

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A friend once described 2000s rap to me as the equivalent of 80s arena rock, and I’m not sure I could say it any better. It’s defined by elaborate, theatrical beats and comically macho flows that are dubbed over to exhaustion, and Three 6 Mafia’s Da Ubreakables embraces this wholeheartedly. With a maximalist, bling-ridden style, the southern hip hop juggernauts take you through a lengthy collection of turn-up jams that put action before thought.

Although I’m typically not crazy about big orchestral beats, DJ Paul and Juicy J come through with some undeniable bangers on this album, my favorites being Testin My Gangsta and Dangerous Posse, which have a massive but slick groove that you can’t not move to. The group has excellent chemistry throughout their boisterous cyphers, backing each other up when they’re off the mic and keeping the energy consistently high.

2010s:

Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait (2014)

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If I could describe this EP in one word, it would be foreboding. Deeply, deeply foreboding. From the outset of Fire, monolithic, looming 808s and an ominous ‘tick-tock’ sound lead to an explosive groove, over which Vince recites harrowing tales of his youth. The violent clash of the industrial drums and Vince’s cynical, sarcastic flow, along with the mantra ‘prolly finna go to hell anyway’, set the tone beautifully for the dark, suffocating fog that entraps the following 22 minutes.

Tracks like Fire, Hands Up, and Blue Suede are obvious choices for the record’s heavier cuts, featuring plenty of brooding bass, siren-like synths, and drums that slice through you like a knife. But perhaps my favorite cut is the slower, quieter Screen Door, which manages to have a terrifying atmosphere without resorting to loudness. Over a minimal beat, Vince details his upbringing as the child of a drug dealer and his father’s eventual addiction to his own product. The wearily-sung hook ‘Who’s that peakin’ in my screen door/I got what you need what you fiend for’ sends shivers down the spine. This is not an album rooted in hyperbole; the stories it tells feel crushingly, depressingly real.

JPEGMAFIA – Veteran (2018)

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The last and most recent album on our list is also by far the most abstract. From the percussive looped vocal samples on Baby I’m Bleeding, to the lumbering, slimy bass on Curb Stomp, to the constant ‘glitching’ of the beat which offsets the meter on nearly every song, JPEGMAFIA’s production leads us through a bizarre sort of digital purgatory where it is he who decides your fate.

Complementing these instrumentals is rapping that is sharp, loud, and inflammatory; with a choppy flow that teems with irate energy, Peggy comes down hard on the rampant racism and general prejudice which pervades the same internet culture in which his music is celebrated, among other figures such as the alt-right, Trump, and the bourgeoisie. Ironic references to videogame and meme culture such as “Bitch I’m draggin’ bodies like it’s Metal Gear” and “I got my hands to my face like Macaulay Culkin” snidely reference both his involvement in and his distaste for internet communities, making for an intense, bewildering album which attacks political injustice from a uniquely millennial perspective.

. . .

There you have it, folks. A list of albums that, while by no means exhaustive, is a good jumping off point into hip hop’s wilder side. Whether it’s the brutal technical assaults of the 90s or the grim irony-tinged works of today, hip hop has always had a diverse sector of artists that strive for that sweet, sweet sensory overload that we love so much in heavy music. So if you’re in the mood for some exhilaration and have had all the Black Flag you can stomach, give these a shot – you won’t be disappointed.

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SHOW REVIEW: Chaz Hearne, Bethany Rhiannon, and Copper Hill at the Bug Jar, Oct. 16

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Rochester folk quartet Copper Hill gives an engaging, crowd-pleasing performance

Beneath soft red lights, a broken mirror ball, and a ‘Blood Feast’ bumper sticker, three acoustic folk acts performed sets of original music and covers for The Bug Jar’s Tuesday night entertainment.

First up was Chaz Hearne, a solo singer-songwriter who took the stage with an air of light enthusiasm. Singing in a shimmering, youthful tenor, he began his set with a series of sentimental ballads and odes featuring wandering, finger-picked banjo accompaniment. Slight amplification gave his five-string instrument a hint of metallic texture, which complemented his earnest and thoughtful ambience as he tapped his shoeless-but-not-sockless foot to the beat. Hearne is a relaxed and natural entertainer, which shows in his informal stage presence and between-song jokes which were worth a chuckle but not funny enough to harsh the mellow.

The latter half of his performance shifted gears a bit as he switched to a Gibson SG and performed a few more rock-influenced tunes, most featuring a loop pedal which he used to create backing tracks and harmonize over his own vocals. Although his loop creation was not as seamless and natural as his banjo work, these final songs had a fun atmosphere of experimentation that showed welcome versatility in his songwriting.

Next was Bethany Rhiannon, who performed with a second, seated guitarist and utilized a more modern acoustic songwriter idiom. Hearne offered them a Snark tuner multiple times, as they appeared to be struggling with their own during set up, but they ignored him and stared ahead wearing unimpressed expressions. The petite, beanie-clad Rhiannon and her bearded companion seemed to fancy themselves the stars of this show – unfortunately their performance did not reflect such confidence.

The set was mostly originals in a mid-2000’s, blues/rock/folk-tinged, adult contemporary style. There were a few catchy hooks here and there, and the guitar work was alright, but the singing was bogged down by Rhiannon’s desire for standout showmanship – she went for a bluesy, Amy Winehouse-esque croon, but her attempts at such vocal gymnastics showed little regard for projection or clarity of pronunciation, making for a hard sell. By the time the duo played their final song, a cover of 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up?, much of the crowd had turned the conversation amongst themselves.

Luckily, the young string band Copper Hill was there to bring them back. Consisting of two violinists/lead singers, an upright bassist, and a banjo player who occasionally doubles on trombone, the quartet wowed the audience with a collection of songs ranging from traditional folk to blues to a sort of string-band indie rock. The room was nearly empty when they played their opener, titled Swift the Stroke, but a straight line of patrons quite quickly formed just feet from the stage.

As the band weaved through their diverse set, audience participation was at a high for the evening; crowd members gave enthusiastic ‘woo!’s after exciting moments, such as the soulful bass solo during their cover of Robert Johnson’s Come on in My Kitchen, and laughed along with witty lyrics during Genevieve, one of the group’s original songs. Couples held each other during more sensitive sections, which were done quite well due to the group’s knack for dynamic contrast. Their youthful brand of folk was a great nightcap for the two-hour show.

REVIEW: Embers – Self-Titled EP

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It seems that the further rock ‘n roll falls from the mainstream, the more polarized it gets. Every act has to be clarified; ‘shoegaze-ey indie rock’, ‘pop-punk emo revival’, ‘progressive slam goregrind’. If a group does describe themselves as simply rock ‘n roll these days, there’s a decent chance they really mean the type of vaguely-grungy crap that has dominated rock radio for the entire 21st century (a la Nickelback or Buck Cherry), and if they don’t, their fans feel the need to distinguish themselves from fans of other subgenres through radically different styles of dress, attitude, and dialect.

Local four-piece Embers, however, doesn’t play by those rules. Rather than trifling with genre boundaries or expectations, they’ve committed themselves to producing solid, well-performed rock music that draws influences as it pleases. Their debut EP, released late September, is a testament to this.

The EP’s four tracks paint a wide musical canvas and display excellent, tasteful songwriting ability. ‘Disregard’ opens the collection with an infectious guitar riff over a powerful drum groove – a dichotomy which quickly blooms into a surging, upbeat full band sound. ‘Stop Motion’ is a bit more subdued at times, and features a bright, punchy bass tone weaving into and around delicate guitar ostinati. ‘Beijing’ feels steadfast in its intentions, particularly in the soaring, anthemic guitar lead which ushers in the second verse, and ‘Sacred’ is perhaps the most dynamic, from the shimmering guitars which seem to come from all directions during the verse to the rhythmic, headbang-inducing breakdown and solo in the song’s second half.

Of particular note across all four tracks is the band’s keen ear for pacing. The way the songs build is always based around emphasizing a specific peak, and as a result these climaxes can be incredibly powerful. Contributing to this, I think, is relative simplicity. Every member of the band is capable of shredding, and they all get a chance to show it at some point, but technicality is never forced. They Understand that a blazing guitar solo does not automatically a climactic moment make, instead privileging big, full-band passages.

Simply put, the EP is solid. If I had to do a ‘sounds like’ thing, I might compare it You Blew It’s album Keep Doing What You’re Doing, but ultimately, the heterogeneity of Embers’ style sets it apart from other acts. I heard influences of post-hardcore, progressive rock, and even some metal across the collection, implemented subtly and blending into the broader product well enough to evade a specific subgenre and maintain accessibility. So if you’re looking for some smart, high-quality rock ‘n roll with a wealth of catchy, hard-hitting riffs, give Embers a shot.

Show Review: Lowfaith, Debris Field, Kodachrome and Chiller at the Bug Jar, Sept. 22

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Pittsburgh hardcore outfit Chiller may not look menacing on the surface, but their short, energetic performance took the Bug Jar by storm

Apathetic shoegazers and aggressive punks joined forces at the Bug Jar Friday as a diverse lineup of bands, ranging in genre from post-punk to borderline metalcore, took the stage.

Colorado Cloud-Rockers Lowfaith played the opening set, as was evident in the reverb-soaked guitars leading me from the front door to the motionless crowd. Though many in the audience were stoic, I couldn’t help but groove as the group played a solid lineup of songs that seemed at once energetic and slothful. The vocals left a bit to be desired – the singer’s occasionally-sketchy pitch and tendency to hold the mic too close suggested a reliance on effects, which were absent this performance – but the set as a whole was well-played and certainly piqued my interest in the band’s new album, On Loss.

Up next was Debris Field, a local punk outfit who announced their presence by sound checking at about three times the volume of Lowfaith. Their performance was consistent with the personality type this implies. A leather-clad frontman hacked away on his taped-up Fender Jaguar while attempting to channel Sid Vicious’ signature snarl. The drummer thrashed BPMs in the upper hundreds the whole time, appearing in great pain at the end of the 15 minute ordeal. The band said nothing, except when when an enthusiastic crowd member called for an encore and the frontman tersely retorted ‘that’s all we got.’ Aside from cool between-song transitions engineered by their dedicated effects/noise operator, there wasn’t much saving their set from mediocrity. The fast-and-sloppy school of punk rock requires a very genuine energy, and without that it’s just… fast and sloppy.
Fortunately Pittsburgh’s Chiller brought this energy in droves, and aesthetically speaking, no one saw it coming. Armed with a hipster-dad bassist and a vocalist who looked more Rivers Cuomo than Henry Rollins, the five-piece nearly blew off the roof with raw, frantic hardcore punk. Rivers jumped off the stage, shrieking in the face of many a crowd member (a bandmate told him to ‘chill out’ at one point between songs) as the rest moved tightly through myriad tempo changes and hairpin transitions. Although their set was scarcely longer than Debris Field’s, it was one of the most exhilarating rock performances I’ve seen in months.
The surge of adrenaline Chiller left me with was not lost on the final act, Kodachrome. While not quite as ferocious as the group preceding, Kodachrome’s strength lay in their surgical approach to hardcore. The vocals had a mean and nasal kick reminiscent of H.R. from Bad Brains, and the bass/guitar tones had enough punch to dish out laser-precision riffs without compromising low end. The strongest offering of the evening musicianship-wise, they took punk seriously without abandoning its essence.
The $5 cover was worth it for the last two bands alone, but Lowfaith’s longer and more contemplative set added much-needed variety, cementing the evening as one of versatility and high-quality musicmaking. Plus, I was home by 12:30. Punks gotta sleep too.

REVIEW: Brockhampton – Iridescence

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For a group that released three critically-acclaimed albums within the final half of 2017, Brockhampton hit a remarkable amount of potholes on the road to their newest LP. The elusive work was originally slated for a May release, but experienced multiple delays due to both creative changes and, more notably, the ejection of abusive former member Ameer Vann. Now it’s finally here, in all its glory, under the name Iridescence.

Iridescence is simultaneously more stripped-down and more theatrical than Brockhampton’s previous efforts; tracks like NEW ORLEANS, BERLIN, WHERE THE CASH AT, DISTRICT, and J’OUVERT employ jagged, distorted synths, wobbly, droney bass, and punchy, hard-hitting drum programming. There are certainly some stylistic similarities to Saturation-era tracks like HEAT and BUMP at play, but a distinctly dark and sinister air, not present on the earlier bangers, surrounds the new cuts. We get a sense of real frustration and disillusion on these tracks; the group’s aggression is no longer about showing the world who they are. Now it’s about grappling with the dark side of that very fame they sought.

But while the louder tracks are certainly nice, a few listens in I found it was the more sensitive moments which kept me coming back. Brockhampton has always balanced their braggadocio with introspection, but the rocky 2018 they’ve experienced has charged their softer tracks with considerably more depth; songs like WEIGHT, TAPE, and TONYA not only see the group’s lyricists come through with some of their most personal material yet (much of it concerning the aftermath of the Ameer controversy, members’ unyielding depression in spite of their success, and reminiscence on the group’s early days), but have some extremely beautiful and versatile instrumentals to boot.

Classical strings play heavily into these tracks, bolstering and intermingling with a colorful variety of synths, samples, and drums which fluctuate between sparse beat-keeping and fast-paced techno grooves. Piano plays a much more prominent role as well, especially on TONYA, in which it is the sole accompaniment for the first two minutes. And of course, I couldn’t review this album without mentioning the very odd but life-affirming ending of SAN MARCOS, which sounds unmistakably like the country hits one might hear in a certain Texas-only fast food restaurant at 3 AM.

Vocal performances themselves are fairly solid, with former sideliners Joba and Bearface coming up to the front lines as both singers and rappers, and core members Matt Champion and Dom McLennon receiving a bit more screen time in the absence of Ameer. I was thrilled with most of Matt and Dom’s verses, and I felt they displayed a lot of versatility in their flows which kept their presence from becoming monotonous. Group mastermind Kevin Abstract sounds great as well, although he seems to stick to the background save for hooks and the occasional standout verse (WEIGHT and TAPE are both career highs for him, in my opinion).

Merlyn Wood and Joba’s performances, however, left a bit to be desired. It seems the group has decided to hand Merlyn’s former role as the spastic, hyped out rapper over to Joba, and while Joba at many points sounds properly manic, his hyperspeed rapping and constant fluctuations in pitch become grating and frankly a bit corny after a few tracks. Meanwhile, Merlyn just doesn’t seem to stand out the way he has in the past. He still has his moments, though, with some nice verses on J’OUVERT and NEW ORLEANS.

Between the changes in group hierarchy, expanded instrumental space, and generally somber tone of much of this release, Iridescence Brockhampton is a very different Brockhampton from the one that stole our hearts in the summer of 2017. They’ve traded their loud, blue-on-white visual aesthetic for a moody, amorphous infrared, and their music has very much followed suit; the anger is angrier, the bragging more cynical, the longing more distraught, and the happiness more subdued. And yet, the positive seems to always shine through the cracks.

Iridescence maintains the versatility and eclectic influences of the group’s previous releases, while softening the edges between them and creating a broader, more cohesive sound. It’s not the fun, zany romp that Saturation was, but it couldn’t be. Brockhampton has begun a new chapter in their artistic process; one that is about healing, about acceptance, about catharsis. It’s messy and naked at times, reserved and introspective at others. It’s full of loss, unrest, and pines for simpler times. But most importantly, it’s full of growth.

My Album of the Summer Could‘ve Had Gibberish for Lyrics And I’d Love it Just the Same

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Can one identify with a song musically but not lyrically? I mean this within reason, of course; I’m not about to say that lyrics mean nothing, or that we should all go and assign our own narratives to songs about sensitive events in artists’ lives. But a song’s musical aspects (including vocal melody/cadence) account for all of its content except for the text itself, so why are we so averse to deriving meanings the text doesn’t suggest?

I’ve thought about this a lot, but the tipping point happened this summer as I obsessed over Snail Mail’s debut LP, Lush. For me it was this summer’s Flower Boy, as around the same time last year I was running through Tyler the Creator’s comeback multiple times a day, knowing every song front to back and somehow never getting tired of it (the obsession has returned about every month and a half since).

Everything musical about Flower Boy, from the ponderous piano loop at the beginning of Where This Flower Blooms to the lonely, dreamy guitar chords of Garden Shed to Tyler’s deadpan flow on Boredom, resonated with me in just the right way. The lyrics were also extremely timely – I was a year into a struggle with chronic pain that ended my career in classical music, and I drew a lot of connections between the identity crisis I experienced, having lost that huge part of my life, and Tyler’s confessional meditations on losing relevance and sense of purpose.

The funny thing, though, is that I feel the same connection to Lush, despite not having much personal connection to the lyrics. They’re definitely well-written – Lindsey Jordan’s meditations on love, loss, and resisting manipulation are crafted with great taste, and I can relate most of them to past experiences. But this summer they didn’t really apply. I wasn’t dealing with heartbreak, I was at peace with pretty much everyone in my life, and I didn’t have or want romantic feelings toward anyone.

My anxiety was directed much more at the fact that I’m graduating soon and will be forced to confront the financial realities of the real world, pursuing a job that is notoriously difficult to land while dealing with a condition that at times makes sending a text message painful. And somehow, Jordan’s songwriting encompassed those very specific feelings flawlessly for me.

The soft drive of the bass and drums on Speaking Terms is me wandering around my new neighborhood, the warm sunset reminding me that sometimes just making it through the day is the most important goal. The intro to Heat Wave, whose twinkly guitar work sounds at once melancholy, lonely, and inexplicably hopeful, is my days off work where I had nothing to do but no inspiration to be productive. Anytime, which to me sounds so beautifully and quietly distraught, is my acceptance that I must leave behind certain aspects of my youth, but that I can still look back on them and understand how they enriched me.

The personal meaning I get from these moments is too vivid for me to discard just because it doesn’t reflect the text. What the artist says and how they set it musically will always take precedent interpretation-wise, of course, but can there not be subjective qualities that are independent of the words? We do this with classical music all the time – Mahler’s second symphony is about death and rebirth, but that was never of huge concern when I thought about what it meant to me, and I think most people familiar with the piece would say that it has some form of meaning to them beyond the composer’s intention. If we can take the leap toward personal interpretation in that context, despite Mahler’s offering a definite meaning for the piece, why not allow ourselves that freedom with popular music?

Music itself cannot portray specific concepts; there will never be an instrumental passage that objectively portrays the death of a loved one, or jealousy of a crush’s partner, or sitting in a really comfy chair. Lyrics solidify these ideas for the listener, creating a wonderful bond of poetry and music. But while we can and should appreciate the fruits of this bond, behind it is a beautifully amorphous musical entity which can in turn convey feelings that words cannot. Perhaps we should lend this space some more thought.

Review: Despite a Slow Opening and Somewhat-Cringey Track Names, Mom Jeans’ ‘Puppy Love’ is a Solid Follow-up to their Stellar Debut

To many, the word ‘emo’ conjures images (or memories) of late nights on 2007 Myspace, hundreds of dollars spent at Hot Topic, and groups like My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday, and Fall Out Boy.

A lesser known fact about the genre, however, is that it existed long before its short mainstream peak and continues to exist long after. It started in the 80s as a reaction to hardcore punk’s increasingly  hypermasculine image, breeding less violent (but still hardcore) bands like Rites of Spring and Dag Nasty. This eventually led to a wave of nerdy, math-rock inspired bands like Cap’n Jazz in the 90s, who were too sensitive for shaved heads and combat boots but too not-15 for the side swept hair and eyeshadow that marked the 2000s emo craze.

These days, emo bands are something of an amalgamation – partly a continuation of that mathy 90s aesthetic, partly inspired by the 2010s indie rock boom, tinged with elements of the pop punk bands we all loved between 1995 and 2005, and often seasoned with anywhere from a pinch to a hefty handful of self-deprecating meme culture.

Enter Mom Jeans. This California band’s debut LP Best Buds was one of my favorite rock albums of the last few years, thanks to its solid performances, catchy riffs, and general conveyance that the group saw the humor in their melodrama. This was evident not only in worth-a-chuckle track names like ‘Edward 40hands’ and ‘Vape Nation’, but also in the sarcastic, Goofy-esque croon that frontman Eric Butler employed to sing his suburban blues. These endearing aspects, combined with genuinely good songwriting, shot the band to the top of the American emo scene and had the community eagerly awaiting their next release.

Now, exactly two years after the release of ‘Best Buds’, the wait is over. Puppy Love is a 10-track followup that doesn’t stray too far from the band’s winning formula, but still manages to bring some new ideas, both musically and thematically, to the table.

Because I like this band and want to get to the part where I say good things, I’m going to get the negative stuff out of the way right now. The first one has nothing to do with the music but honestly bothered me the most – they tried too hard with the track names. The clever titles on Best Buds came off as organic, like the group was just using their sense of humor to throw some funny names on their sad songs. But on Puppy Love, nearly every track name is an attempt at a joke, with specimens like near death fail comp (must watch til end), now THIS is podracing, and PICKLE BART (I really hope this Rick and Morty reference was ironic) inducing audible groans upon my first reading of the list.

But as far as gripes that actually concern the music go, my main issue is that some of the songs toward the beginning just aren’t that interesting. The intro track is alright, bringing the unique, strummy guitar work and unique vocals we know and love in from the get-go, but the next two tracks, sponsor me tape and glamorous, were a slog for me. ‘Sponsor me’ starts with the same two chords repeated for almost 40 seconds, which I found completely unnecessary, and aside from a cool proggy section toward the end not much else about it excited me. And while ‘Glamorous’ opens with a catchy guitar melody, it just sounds a little too similar to stuff we’ve already heard from the band to hold its own on the new record.

After these first few tracks, however, the album picks up significantly. I left my towel at my friend’s house and then they moved parts 1 and 2 are by far my favorite tracks on the album, employing a tasty guitar lead that has a bit more tonal complexity than their previous work (but not in a forced way) and taking it through two tracks – the first a slow sadjam™ and the second a faster, punkier conclusion.

Performances in general are improved from the already-high standard set by Best Buds – the addition of second guitarist Bart Starr allows for more versatile leads, including some almost power metal-esque harmonies on you cant eat cats Kevin, and Butler’s singing, though still retaining that tongue-in-cheek character, is infinitely more solid and accurate than it was two years ago. The band stays tight and punchy through myriad tempo changes and strategic pause-hits which add great emphasis to the more jammy moments, and, as some of the material they released between this and Best Buds hinted at, they get a little more aggressive at times (such as in the intro to PICKLE BART).

Lyrically, Puppy Love more-or-less retains the melodramatic but light-hearted nature of their previous work, although there are a few points where darker and more serious subjects like suicide and self-harm are touched on (particularly on glamorous). There are also some kinda clever lines here and there, such as ‘Need to know that my body isn’t just a hollow shell/to fill with Marlboro lights and unethically sourced meats’ on season 9 ep 2-3 and ‘It’s time to get some help from someone who’s not you or my parents’ on Jon bong jovi, which stand out among the somewhat-repetitive lyrics.

To be honest, I wasn’t super sold on this album upon my first listen. A friend had recently turned me onto Snail Mail’s absolutely incredible debut album, which essentially scratches the same itches but in a more artsy and poetic manner, and going from there to this more simplistic effort felt like a downgrade initially. But having spent a bit more time with Puppy Love, I’m remembering that Mom Jeans has something going for them that few bands in their arena do: they’re fun. The songs on Puppy Love are fun, catchy, and 110% boppable, and while the lyrics may be very on-the-nose, they’re like that by design; the band’s entire aesthetic would be ruined if Butler was dressing his bleeding-heart quips in a more poetic veil. Though it may not be flawless and it may not blow Best Buds out of the water, Puppy Love is still a very enjoyable album which shows growth from the band without abandoning their roots. I haven’t checked r/emo since the album came out, but I’m hoping their fans (and stans) see it the same way.

Bonus: Here’s a picture of me looking like a total dork with the drummer and frontman last summer. Their shows rock, go see them live!

ayyy

 


Rating: 7.7/10

Does it slap?: It’s a slap, a bop, and a groove

Drink to pair with: A Bud